Wednesday, November 14, 2007


The Orange County Board of Elections denied Cam Hill’s request for a recount so the Chapel Hill municipal election is officially certified. I really think this was a very interesting election not for what happened but rather for what didn’t happen, and that is having a “real” campaign with candidates debating the various issues that voters might use in making their voting decisions.

Yes, we had plenty of forums and many things were said, but try this as a test: ask a friend what the top five issues were that separated the candidates. I suspect you will get pretty much the same reaction that I have gotten every time that I have asked that question: a blank stare!

Here’s my take on what we had in Chapel Hill. Instead of something that I will call “simple incumbency,” where a candidate runs on his or her record against a field of challengers and the other incumbents for the four seats, we had “SUPER INCUMBENCY.” Super incumbency is when all five of the current holders of the seats are seeking reelection AND they decide to “run together” against all challengers.

It’s a good thing that those who have served want to continue to serve, and I absolutely have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when the five individuals who occupy the five seats appear to have agreed to a mutually beneficial campaign strategy, one that appears to diminish our ability to have a real debate or even a discussion of the issues. Diversity of opinion is a good thing, and we ought to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.

The fact that Matt Czajkowski did come in fourth says a lot about his ability to get his message out to voters while the five “SUPER INCUMBENTS” seemed to want only to talk about their past service and how they worked so well together in atypical harmony. In affirmation of their strategy, Mayor Kevin Foy sent out pre-election “robocalls” to voters asking them to reelect him (no problem with that, and I voted for him!) AND the other four incumbents.

Someone asked me why this troubled me and I told them it was because I would have preferred that the mayor have remained above the fray. He has to lead the council that the voters put in office. When a non-incumbent wins (as just happened), what’s the message to the victor? The “outsider” knows for sure that the mayor didn’t want him to win, but those few who bothered to vote obviously did. Yes, 2,932 gave the winner their vote and in the context of an election where only 15% of us bothered to vote, 13.74% of the Council vote is important.

Look at the results as certified by the BoE:

Matt Czajkowski (4th)/2,932/13.74%
Sally Greene (I, 2nd)/3,917/18.36%
Cam Hill (I, 5)/2,872/13.46%
Will Raymond (7th)/1,409/6.60%
Penny Rich (6th)/2,442/11.44%
Bill Strom (I, 3d)/3,735/17.50%
Jim Ward (I, 1st)/3,929/18.41%
Write-In (multiple)/102/0.48%

Does it mean anything that a candidate can win the fourth seat with under 3,000 votes?

In the mayor’s race, the results were:

Kevin C. Foy /4,333/70.17%
Kevin Wolff/1,803/29.20%

What’s interesting is that if we assume that everyone who voted for a council member also voted for mayor, but all who voted for mayor didn’t use all four of their council votes, it might explain some things. According to the BoE’s data, 6,175 voters cast mayoral votes. If all had voted for four council candidates, the number is 24,700. The total council votes were 21,338. The 3,362 “missing votes” suggests that more than a few voters chose to vote for only one, two, or three council candidates. Of course, the assumption is key, as there are probably people who did vote for the Council and not the mayor, but I think the pattern is obvious.

I wish all of the victors well as they work hard serving us during their term of office. I’m also sure that Mayor Foy and the other incumbents will be welcoming and treat Matt Czajkowski as he should be treated, but I wish I didn’t have to wonder about how he would be treated in the first place. I also wish the “SUPER INCUMBENTS” along with the four challengers had shown where and how they differed on policy. In addition, and most importantly, I wish they had spent more time talking about our future and the issues that face us.

What do you think? I’d really like your feedback on this.


Anonymous said...

So why didn't you run?

Kirk Ross said...

Good column, Fred.

laurin said...

Very interesting Fred. I'm wondering if running in a super incumbent block against a group of challengers takes away from the individual candidate (of the block) and our appreciation of that individual in what he/she brings to the table. We vote for individuals, not blocks. And what does that say for how the individual speaks to the issues that concerns them the most? What if that issue is not necessarily one the super block would necessarily endorse?

WillR said...

Fred, I certainly outlined a positive program for change backed by some examples of where the incumbents went wrong (like my backing 5 Sierra Club agenda items over the nays of the 'bloc'). As we've seen in the last week, some of the issues I tried to stir discussion on - development, the comprehensive plan - are now fair-game. Others, like reforming affordable housing, public accountability and our rapidly shrinking diversity - yet to be broached.

What does it say that I got more press because Jim didn't like my going 19 seconds long on an answer - incredible - then talking about the homogenization of our community?

In a campaign where the media generally deferred to the incumbents, and ther than spending a ton of more money, I was a bit at a loss on how to get my message out.

The "super bloc" got endorsed together, ran a "no mistakes" campaign of little substance, had a joint mailing and robocall, plus the power of incumbency - running from the bench, so to speak.

A real tough nut to crack. Which underlines how well both Penny and Matt did.

Finally, you talk about how running as a 'bloc' might set the winning challenger outside. Having gotten to know Matt, I think he'll do fine - including forgiving one of his future colleagues for some really nasty commentary and rather disrespectful behaviour during the forums.

laurin said...

I agree that Matt will do fine. And I welcome him on the Town Council and look forward to serving with him in the next two (+ ?) years. And Will I appreciate your adherence to the issues during the campaign and your heart in what you speak of. I thought Penny did a fine job this season, as well. I really enjoyed the forums that I got to see and almost :) wished I could have been there participating myself. Running a campaign for town council is fun, challenging, but stressful. Even though you meet so many people, discuss a great many ideas and feel good about how you can help Chapel Hill's future, you never know truly what the voters will do until they cast their ballots. I remember people telling me not to worry, that I was going to do fine, etc. but I never felt sure about that until the votes came in. You just never know what will happen. Honestly this year, I never would have guessed that Jim Ward would turn out the top vote getter (by a few votes.)

Priscilla Murphy said...

Agree with your overall wish that the incumbents had not allowed themselves to be "harnessed up" as a team with Kevin Foy as the leader, but – for better or worse – it almost worked, didn’t it? Almost.

Think we have to remind ourselves about the reasons for the “super-incumbent” quadruple-teaming: 1. above all, it showed incumbents’ confidence in their performance, such that it all but turned the election into a referendum on steady-as-the-Council-goes rather than on any one, two, or five issues; 2. it was a form of efficiency; 3. it relied on a degree of citizen approval, acquiescence, apathy, or even ignorance.

In fact, if Matt Czajkowski hadn’t run and been successful to the extent he was, we might not even be talking much about this; so his existence and election are worth looking at, as are the facts that Jim pulled the most votes and that it was Cam Hill’s seat Matt won rather than anyone else’s.

In other words, voters did make distinctions.

Undoubtedly, there was overlap between Czajkowski and the Wolff voters, but note that Matt drew 1129 more votes than Wolff. So it wasn’t just about blocks of votes; somewhere in there, there was an issue or two. Whatever “message” it might have been that Matt got out, the point is that there was a message, not just that someone got out the conservative vote.

You (Fred) wrote: “When a non-incumbent wins . . . , what’s the message to the victor?” And what’s the message to the other victors, not to mention the incumbent who lost. I’m less concerned about how Matt will be treated (although maybe I should be) than I am about how his “message” will be treated – whatever that message is thought to be.

Certainly the issue of downtown revitalization seems to be at the forefront, perhaps more important than developer-relations or Carolina North. Indeed, I have a suspicion that Chapel Hill citizens in general (other than those involved in peri-CN activism) may believe that the Council is spending way too much attention to a project that’s so far in the future and – they THINK – won’t have much impact on their neighborhood. A number of my neighbors, in fact – who will be affected quite directly by CN – nonetheless gripe much more often about the hassles of going downtown for "dinner and a movie" or just shopping. Otherwise, if they even read the paper, they mainly look at headlines and letters and ask each other who to vote for.

--Which brings us to the role of the media in allowing a “super-incumbent” block to act as it did. We can note, just for starters, that a number of the letters-to-the-editor endorsements broke up the 5-incumbent block. But this comment’s already too long. Back to you on the media, Fred!

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. Thanks for sharing it with me. I wish the super-block had been broken up a bit more - and found the idea of five people running as a block more unseemly. But not surprising. The past few cycles have seen a large amount of group-think in general, and this is but one manifestation.

That said, I wish everyone well. I don't know Matt at all, but I hope he'll bring some critical thinking to the party, so to speak.

Fred said...

Thanks for all of the perspectives on this. One person wrote me an email asking if I thought that the “Super Incumbents” saw that they were in effect creating a temporary political party. The slate approach isn’t in and of itself bad, unless the way it is managed retards the debate on the critical issues.

Another comment was that Matt was helped by what Cam didn’t do and did do. He seemed to rely too much on the group's coattails instead of the hard campaigning he did four years ago, but then made several statements during the campaign that some voters say they found off-putting.

A third commenter wondered about the impact of endorsements in our elections and how much overlap there is among the people making endorsements without providing much information on who made the decisions and what criteria was used.

Finally, someone offered the point that the forums seemed to show the “group think” nature of the incumbents and the difficulty the challengers had trying to offer up for debate their ideas and different positions. In some cases, the ideas of the challengers were not well received by some of the incumbents. Maybe this is an overgeneralization, but it’s interesting because it may reflect more than one person’s take.

I personally think Matt will be a productive member of the Council and will bring his skills and abilities to the Council's work. I also think that operationally, it’s not just the way the public votes turn out, it’s also how the behind the scenes and committee work is influenced. Being effective doing that takes a lot and I believe Matt is more than able.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that four of the five incumbents actually had a very homogeneous voting record. So why wouldn't they run together? Those four have actually acted as a team on the council, so why not do likewise during the election?

The real question is (or ought to be): Why did Jim Ward, who has a somewhat more independent outlook, choose to run as though he was Bill Strom's best friend?

I have no problem with either Bill or Jim. I think they both have their strengths and both have a few weaknesses - I supported both of them. But there were definitely many voters who do not support both of them.

I think the basic answer is that the incumbents wanted to lock out Will Raymond (who was initially perceived as the strongest challenger). And you are welcome to feel that it was somehow un-democratic to do so, but I think it was more a matter of Will having built himself quite a reputation as being divisive. And althoguh I know Will hates to hear that, the fact is that he alone is responsible for that assessment.

So was it really inappropriate for the incumbents to tie their political ships together to keep Will out? I don't think so. Besides, what's to complain about? The strategy didn't entirely work anyway, right? Bill Strom's working majority has been split wide open and no one can really say what will happen next, right?

Anonymous said...

I would feel better about Matt's potential service to the community, if he had at least voted once in a municipal election. He didn't until his own election.

When asked why, he told the News and Observer that all the candidates were alike. Err. Not a very engaged person.

I stood by while someone asked Matt about some standing committees. He had no idea what they were talking about. It was obvious.

Another asked Matt about some solutions to problems, some in facts proposed by Laurin, he had no idea that there was any history there but proposed the same solutions already approved by Council.

Matt will be a good Council member if and when he works hard enough to be a valued participant in the process.

Riding his bike to one forum doesn't constitute an environmental policy. That's where he is so far.

Ruby said...

Lots of interesting comments here. I have two thoughts to add:

Fred asked the question "Does it mean anything that a candidate can win the fourth seat with under 3,000 votes?" Yes, I think it shows that Cam didn't campaign very hard and that many of Matt's voters didn't cast 4 ballots (as was noted above).

I totally understand the unease of the apparent incumbent slate in Chapel Hill this year, and I also would have liked to see a bit more individual campaigning. At the same time, I don't think there's necessarily a conspiracy just because each incumbent also supported the re-election of the others.

For example, I personally supported the 4 Council candidates, but not the Mayor, and I think that most voters chose their own combinations of challengers and incumbents (Cam's loss is proof of this). It's just that more of their ballots included Sally, Bill, and Jim.

Anonymous said...

I'm missing the point of this. If incumbents have a shared vision, why shouldn't they run together? It gives the voters a clear target if they do not like the policies, and if the voters like the current policies an easy way to support them. I think most Chapel Hill voters are pretty sophisticated. Having run for office in Chapel Hill 4 times myself (all in the 1970s) I can say that campaigning together is nothing new, sometimes I was on a slate, sometimes not. It sure saved money to do a joint ad!


Anonymous said...

It's not a matter of shutting out a particular candidate but a matter of shutting down discussion of issues.

Anonymous said...


1. How many mayors in prior elections endorsed Council candidates?

2. How many mayors in prior elections endorsed a full slate for the Council, all of whom were incumbents?

3. How many mayors in prior elections did joint mailers and phone calls on behalf of all of the incumbents?

4. Why was it important to have a 2007-2009 Council that was identical to the 2005-2007 one?

5. As Doug Schworer pointed out in his letter to the CHN this morning, he was given a "raspberry" for his robocall in 2005; why didn't the CHN give the Mayor one this year?

And we wonder why people have a problem with the local media and some of our elected government officials?

Anonymous said...

"-Gerry" above says, "I'm missing the point of this. If incumbents have a shared vision, why shouldn't they run together?"

Most folks didn't think they shared a vision, rather, they spent their time trying to supress any real discussion of the issues before us.

Shame on Jim Ward for throwing in with the other incumbents! Of course most of the campaign generated letters to the editor didn't seem to include him, so you have to wonder just how accepted by the others he really was.

WillR said...

"having built himself quite a reputation as being divisive"

This "reputation" owes more to skillful propaganda than reality but if by divisive you mean:

divisive - creating dissension or discord.

dissension - difference of opinion; disagreement.

discord - lack of agreement among persons, groups, or things.

Then, yep, I disagree thoroughly with some of what the incumbents have done and proposed to do (or, more importantly, refuse to do).

Basically, because I disagreed with the way some things - like Lot #5, the budget process, diminished citizen input, driving diversity out of our community, etc. - are going I was divisive.

Why run if I didn't think there was a better way to go about the Town's business? Under the premise that T.J. and his ilk offered, there was no way for anyone with a distinctly different take on issues to be anything but divisive.

That said, I agree with Fred and "anonymous", the real failure of the super bloc strategy lies in squelching discussion/debate of the real issues before us. It was quite disingenuous, for instance, to claim we didn't we didn't need to discuss comprehensive plan reform during the election "because everything is just alright" (an agreement all 5 of the bloc seem to share) and then, 1 day after the election, admit there are problems and open up a discussion the 'bloc' controls.

Enforced concordance. Not very good for small d-democracy, great political strategy it appears.

Anonymous said...

No, Will, your divisiveness does not stem from the fact of your disagreement with Bill Strom (or anyone else). Your divisiveness stems from your tendency to treat the people you disagree with as though they were the devil. Just because you have a different opinion doesn't mean that you are objectively right, Will.

Like you Will, I don't support Lot 5. But I don't and won't support you either - because you treat your opponents so rudely. Bill Strom may be wrong about Lot 5, but he is also a decent guy who has done a lot of great things for Chapel Hill. So far I am would be hard pressed to say the same about you.

WillR said...

Anonymous, treating folks like the Devil seems pretty harsh indictment, care to provide an example? I'm tough, I'm passionate, sometimes sarcastic but I don't believe that constitutes treating folks "as though they were the devil" (maybe my idea of how to treat the Devil differs from yours).

As far as courtesy and respect, Bill is not a very good role model to compare me to - you only have to review his contemptuous disrespect of Penny Rich at the Dem forum to get a taste of where his head is at.

Oh, and on courtesy, it would be nice (but not necessary) if in your condemnation of my character you would shed your anonymity.

It might help anyone else reading this thread get some context.